Monthly Archives: October 2011

Net Impact Redefined for a New Generation

It’s 4 o’clock in the morning in Portland, Oregon and my 6-month old daughter thinks we’re on East Coast time. So she is as awake and happy as she gets, and I, somehow, am not.

I’m here for the annual Net Impact conference, a gathering of MBA students and professionals that want to use business skills to change world. This is my sixth time at the conference, and my third time speaking at the conference, including their first European conference in Geneva in in 2008, which I blogged here. What keeps me coming back to this event is the feeling I get when I’m there with the thousands of participants that there truly is enough talent and commitment in the world to do what needs to be done. To discover, to persuade, to implement, to do all the things necessary to create a world that is both sustainable and just.

I’ve been aware of Net Impact since I helped organize a conference on business, technology and the environment called Ecotech in 1997. That was so long ago that my conference didn’t have a website, but I remember reaching out to a group called Students for Responsible Business (SRB), an offshoot of BSR, and wondering what it was like to be an MBA that was passionate about sustainability. I wouldn’t have guessed that almost 5 years later, I would launch a Net Impact chapter at Stanford Business School.

SRB became Net Impact, and has been evolving ever since, even as the very concept of socially responsible business has morphed into a broader understanding that the tools of business can be applied in almost any setting, and that social responsibility should really be no different from the basic duty of any company to operate in ways that are responsible. In a sense, the founders of this organization understood that responsibility could not be a side project, but had to be a core principle. At this conference I heard from folks like Hannah Jones at Nike, who talked about the importance of innovation, and Ben Packard of Starbucks, who spoke on the topic of transparency.

Net Impact is often a place where companies announce new initiatives, share their best practices and recruit for new talent. But the bar is getting higher for the next generation of emerging business professionals.

In the almost 20 years since this community first formed both the world of CSR and the students themselves have changed. They are not just looking for good companies to work for. In the sessions I participated in on impact investing, I heard questions from students who plan to start social enterprises, become impact investors, or who are interested in being a part of a movement that challenges the assumptions of business as usual fundamentally.

Being with them, in addition to the dear friends I’ve made here, gives me hope for the future.

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Contribution is

Contribution is creating something of value 

Contribution is leaving your mark, without taking anything in exchange

When you find ways to make others shine, you show your own best self

Others will only know that something great has occurred

You inspire others to make their own contributions

Maybe that’s the biggest contribution of all

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The work and life dance

I first shared this at a Women’s Salon hosted by Jacqueline Novogratz, I week before I would return to work from maternity leave:

When I gave birth to my second child, a lovely little girl named Aviva, I learned some things that I think will prove very useful as I navigate this phase of my life. The phase of being a mother of young children and a professional.

Because she was my second I assumed the birth would be faster and easier than the first with my son Elia. I was all set for a drug-free birth, and when it was time, everything seemed to be right on track. But 9 hours into labor as I watched the sun rise over the East River and still labored along, I realized it was going to be much harder than I expected – and that’s my first Aha. It’s all about expectations.

When you have an idea about yourself, an expectation of what your life will be like, it can be very hard to adjust. I have always seen myself as a worker, as ambitious. My goal as a teenager was to be precocious at 40. What do you have to do to be considered precocious at 40? A LOT. I never wanted to catch up to myself.

Having children has made me face those expectations and consider anew how I define myself and my goals. I don’t suggest it’s a mistake to have expectations, but the more we cling to them the harder it can be to adjust when life changes.

On the day Aviva arrived, I can tell you she was NOT being precocious. At 13 hours of labor, I realized I was no longer having the profound, deepening experience I wanted. Exhausted and uncertain, I had a feeling of wanting to escape. And I realized I had the freedom to change course. I asked for the drugs that would remove the pain and accelerate the labor, in that order mind you, and an hour and a half later I had Aviva in my arms.

I felt that I had experienced the best of both worlds. Laboring naturally gave me a feeling of connection to my husband and my own strength, but having, and then taking the option to switch gears had allowed me to get back to myself, and ultimately, brought the speedy arrival of my life’s treasure, my little girl.

And that brought me my second Aha – the importance of flexibility, not just with my choices, but with myself. I decided to own the choice to take medications as the right choice for me, even though it had not been a few hours earlier.

Being a professional and a mother has forced me to face my expectations and see where some of them may be outdated, out-of-sync with what I now value most. And I am now trying to be flexible with myself, making the constant adjustments between all the elements of my life and accepting them as they evolve.  Maybe today I can’t possibly miss that all day off-site meeting or dinner with a Partner, but then tomorrow I’ll leave the office early to go with my son to a birthday party for his 3 year old friend. I choose, day to day, and find there is not much of a logic to it. Just a constant dance.

More and more I find that “balance” is a silly word for what women who are both mothers and professionals do as they combine work and family. Balance implies there is an ideal and static proportion that works. But my experience is more like wearing those new exercise shoes with rounded bottoms. They keep you always off balance so you’re always working your muscles.

I’m finding that my life is about being off balance all the time and always having to reflect on my choices. When Elia was 9 months old, I took him with me on a business trip to DC where I was going to give a talk to women from around the world who led local women’s organizations. It was a great having him with me, and I cherish the memory of him sleeping in a crib next to my bed at a friend’s house in Arlington as I prepared my talk, but I second-guessed myself when he threw up on the babysitter the next day, WHILE I was giving that talk. I’ll tell him the story when he’s older and I’m curious what he’ll think.

I know I think about this stuff too much, and I’m still learning to let go and trust that as I navigate these choices, I’ll do what’s right, even as that changes. I feel blessed to have the options I do, but also know that as a society, we have a long ways to go in making sure that motherhood is not a liability for half of the world’s most talented people. Sadly, we still see women kept out or opting out from leadership positions across the board. This is a loss for everyone, and yet I understand why women with children sometimes choose to avoid the highest rungs of leadership when forced to choose between family and work. It doesn’t have to be a choice, and we can do much better.

Personally, my goal is no longer to be precocious at 40, but to be someone who helps redefine what it means to be a “working mother” (we all know that every mother is a working mother). I’ll be going back to my office in one week, and will bring these lessons with me. It will be harder than expected, perhaps, and will require real flexibility on everyone’s part – mine, my children’s, my teammates and my husband (who really gets the short end of the stick). And all of this is made more complicated by the fact that my work is not about the paycheck, but about my values and sense of purpose. I feel so privileged to work in a place where I feel I can make a positive impact in the world, yet it makes it that much harder to integrate my work into an increasingly full life without feeling like I am pulling myself in a million directions.

My new aspiration is to have the courage to forge my own path. To show that my contributions as a professional and change agent are not a function of how much I am willing to sacrifice at home, but rather a result of my bringing my whole self to everything do. If I can embrace that, truly, I know I can bring amazing things to life.

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The subtle power of respect

I live in NY, second only to Paris when it comes to the dangers of stepping in dog poo. Residents of my quaint West Village neighborhood try valiantly to dissuade dog owners from letting their dogs defile their carefully manicured gardens. These gardens, I should say, are typically 1′ X 3′ miniature oases that rest at the feet of the trees that make this city livable. The residents put up signs that say “curb your dog” and “stay off” and show pictures (for the illiterate?) of dogs with a big red cross hatch. Not very dog-friendly, or dog-owner friendly for that matter. Then I saw a sign that said “Please respect this tree.” That was different. That was cool. How can we use respect as a driver of change, instead of guilt and admonishments?

Respect is one of the values we hold dearest at Acumen Fund, where I work – with a focus on respecting even those who have been marginalized to the degree that their dignity is threatened, not to mention their lives. So we love the idea of respect as a driver of change. But it’s so easy to get it wrong – blowing off a meeting, underestimating a colleague, gossiping, ignoring deadlines. And that too is an opportunity to show respect. In some ways, respect is most powerful when it is toughest to feel.

Respect also requires the giver to have some degree of self-respect or esteem. So, to foster respect, how do we create institutions and organizational cultures that strengthen self-esteem rather than destroy it. The people I have met who’ve amazed me with their resilience, dignity and strength despite huge challenges have taught me the most about self respect and respect for others. They are literally with me every day. What drives them probably varies, but I think of a grandmother in Rajasthan who lived in a mud-walled compound near Jodhpur with her husband, two children (the third was working in the city) and 5 or 6 grandchildren. She was the embodiment of pride, bragging about her grandchildren’s performance in school, and the fact that all the children went, even the girls. In her home, we saw a solar panel to give them lighting at night, and a cheap detergent they used to keep their simple home immaculate. She sat and spoke with me and a team of IDEO designers about the challenges of getting safe water, and I swear a queen couldn’t have sat in a more regal way, with more confidence and pride. I don’t know how she gets it, but perhaps it is all of our birthright, and the key is not to let anything or anyone take it away. (I was there for the Ripple Effect project)

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Here we go

So first it was a thought, then years later, an idea. Then I said it out loud. And now, here it is, my blog. I guess it’s not such a surprise. I like to talk, so why not write? Seth Godin pushed me over the edge when he said writing could be like talking – do it often and publicly, and you’ll get better at it. So here I go.

And once I decided, I started to come up with reasons why it was a good idea. That’s often how I operate. Since I talk to people about the social sector, and philanthropy, and careers, and work-life balance, on all sorts of things, about once a week, I thought, I could at least write some of what I say down and share it to minimize the number of one-on-one conversations I have where I repeat the same things. That might leave me more time for other things, like helping to tell Acumen Fund’s story, raising money, taking care of my kids, trying to change the world.

Now I can say, read my blog, and if there’s anything I haven’t covered there, let me know what it is, and I’ll write a blog about it.

Thank you for making it this far. Let me know if you have any questions.

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